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Search for human remains in sunken Japanese WWII bomber underway in Kyushu

This photo provided by Tetsuro Hayashi shows divers examining the Type 97 carrier-based torpedo bomber on the seafloor off the island of Tanegashima in Kagoshima Prefecture on May 14, 2018. =Click/tap photo for more images.

KAGOSHIMA -- Japan has embarked on a survey to search for human remains in a sunken Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft off the island of Tanegashima in southwest Japan's Kyushu region.

    According to the Japan Association for Recovery and Repatriation of War Casualties designated by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to do the survey, it will be the first ever attempt to retrieve human remains from an Imperial Japanese Navy plane on the seafloor.

    The survey commenced June 15 and is expected to run until June 22. In addition to its plan to retrieve the remains of those who went down with the plane, divers will search for items they left behind. The bomber is also expected to be salvaged.

    The plane, a three-seater Type 97 carrier-based torpedo bomber, is situated about 300 meters north of Kishigasaki on the Kagoshima Prefecture island Tanegashima, where it lies overturned at the bottom of the sea at a depth of about 18 meters.

    The wreckage is 8.8 meters long and 7.3 meters wide -- the cockpit and some other parts are buried below the sand. Officials say its engine, propeller and wing tips have been lost.

    The survey is restricted to the short periods when the area's complex and fast-moving ocean currents are weak, which limits search time to about 20 minutes per day. Divers are taking safety precautions due to the plane's degraded body, which could rupture if pressure is applied and cause metal parts to shoot out. Sea conditions were confirmed by drone on June 15.

    Dive-shop operator Tetsuro Hayashi, 74, a resident of the city of Nishinoomote on Tanegashima, discovered the bomber in the autumn of 2015. Hayashi previously came across a large sunken Japanese transport vessel and human remains in the seas around Guam and Saipan, where fighting was fierce during the Pacific War.

    "I think the bereaved families will be keeping an eye on the latest work," he said. "I hope we can return the spirits of the war dead to their hometowns as soon as possible."

    A law to promote the collection of the remains of war dead enacted in April 2016 states that their retrieval is the government's responsibility. But technical difficulties and safety issues have seen undersea remains treated as "buried at sea."

    But some have expressed reservations about the approach from a perspective of respecting the dead, as people could encounter human remains on sightseeing dives. Where retrieval is possible, sunken vessels and other wrecks have been salvaged.

    (Japanese original by Keisuke Muneoka, Kagoshima Bureau)

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